By Leila Plouffe
All interactions in life are experienced through the body but leave marks on the mind. Feminist theorist Judith Butler reads the body as “not a being, but a variable boundary, a surface whose permeability is politically regulated.” (1) Extending this reading of the body to architecture and space, we can consider both as viable and potentially permeable boundaries, as sites of shifting cultural meaning. Body and site become interdependent, simultaneous, imprinting themselves on one another. Not only do the social and cultural implications of a space imprint themselves on a body, but the presence or absence of a body imprints itself on a space. (2) The potential here is that the cultural charge of a space is subject to radical change based on the bodies present within it: who does, or does not have a seat at the table fundamentally changes what the table looks like.
Historically, public and private spaces were segregated along the binary of gender. Both patriarchy and capitalism as governing social systems mutually reinforce this division of space, defining men’s space as the city, their labour public, and women’s space as the domestic or the home, their labour private. (3) The ongoing making and remaking of spatial boundaries reinforces existing social, cultural, and economic power relations which have been, and continue to be inscribed into built space. (4) Feminist architect Jos Boys posits that because throughout history men have been those controlling how space is built—as architects, politicians, social formers, and city planners—the built environment legitimizes and naturalizes their socialized experiences and perspectives, making them appear obvious, accurate, neutral, and unproblematic. (5) While architecture and space do not loudly dictate the rules and regulations of day-to-day life, they do reinforce the perspectives of their producers, and this has a very real, material effect on individual self-perception. As Leslie Kanes Weisma suggests in “Women’s Environmental Rights: A Manifesto,” physical environments place restraints on the mobility of an individual, shaping their perceptions of not only the space, but themselves. Weisma calls for action against the “oppression” of the built environment:
The man made environments which surround us reinforce conventional patriarchal definitions of women’s role in society and spatially imprint those sexist messages on our daughters and sons. They have conditioned us to an environmental myopia which limits our self-concepts [… ]which limits our visions and choices for ways of living and working […] which limits us by not providing the environments we need to support our autonomy or by barring our access to them. It is time to open our eyes and see the political nature of this environmental oppression! (6)
If space and architecture, as Weisma suggests, exist as cultural artifacts, reflecting and reproducing the cultural values, beliefs, and priorities of the decision makers, where does that position bodies that exist as other in relationship to those architects, designers, planners, and developers? When the physical fabric of a space so vividly contains one particular set of social relations at the expense of others, what space is granted to those who exist on the margins of white, masculine subjectivity? It is difficult to define yourself outside of the frameworks within which you are read by others. For women to define and situate themselves within spaces that they have been historically excluded from, we need critical engagement with the ways in which women’s inequality has been naturalized within built space.
Over time, through the strenuous work of feminist thinkers and activists, space for that critical engagement and a place in public for women has emerged. Of course, this begs the question, a place in public space for which women? Unsurprisingly, white, upper-middle class, able-bodied, cisgendered, straight women have been those to gain the most agency within spaces beyond the home and have increasingly thrived in the sphere of public labour. This shift is something to celebrate, but the work is far from finished. Women who have reaped the social, cultural, and economic rewards of first, second, and third wave feminism cannot rest in their own liberation. The use of feminist understandings and subjectivities, in this case particularly in relation to architecture and space, is vital to critical engagement with and the deconstruction of the cultural priorities, beliefs, and values of decision makers. These socially produced spaces continue to hold in place and reproduce the marginalization and disenfranchisement of racialized, colonized, impoverished, disabled, queer, and non-human bodies. If we seek to build a world of pluralities, where all bodies hold agency within all spaces, I urge us to continually ask the questions: “Who holds agency in what space and why?” and “How can this be disrupted?”, never accepting the built environment as neutral.
Art has historically been a mode of feminist critical engagement and activism, a space for re-imaging and challenging traditional ways of thinking and being. In this series, sculptural objects are introduced into the ongoing negotiation between space and body, creating a dialogue reverberating not only between body (or subject) and space, but instead between body, space, and object. This series utilizes the space between body and imagined sculptural forms which do not read clearly as existing objects to disrupt normative ideas about how public space is occupied and about who or what is occupying it. This work is not intended to be directive in any sense, but rather to open up a site for dialogue and engagement with and re-imagining of the potentials of public space.
The following photo series features soft sculptures by Leila Plouffe and wire sculptures by Stephanie Dover. The series was photographed throughout Edmonton, Alberta, by Sean Trayner, with creative direction by Leila Plouffe and Sean Trayner. Stephanie Dover, Ayesha-Jade Reece and Jessa Gillespie modeled the sculptures.
"Body, Space, Object" appears alongside the full version of Sean Trayner's photo essay in the print edition of V38 Feminisms. On newsstands now.
1. Judith Butler, “Subversive Bodily Acts,” in Gender Space Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, eds. Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner, and Iain Borden (London & New York: Routledge, 2000), 96.
2. Shirley Ardener, “The Partition of Space,” in Gender Space Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, ed. Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner, and Iain Borden (London & New York: Routledge, 2000), 113–114.
3. Leslie Weisma, “Women’s Environmental Rights: A Manifesto,” in Gender Space Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, eds. Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner, and Iain Borden (London & New York: Routledge, 2000), 2.
4. Jane Rendell, “Gender, Space,” in Gender Space Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, eds. Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner, and Iain Borden (London & New York: Routledge, 2000), 102.
5. Jos Boys, “Is there a Feminist Analysis of Architecture?,” Built Environment 10, no. 1 (1978): 27–28.
6. Leslie Weisma, “Women’s Environmental Rights: A Manifesto,” in Gender Space Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, eds. Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner, and Iain Borden (London & New York: Routledge, 2000), 1.
Leila Plouffe is an artist and writer from Edmonton, Canada. Through video, performance, sculpture, and textiles her work frequently explores objecthood and personhood, physicality, codependency and care-ethics.